Think of yesterday's screen actors and today's comparable faces: James Dean and Leonardo Dicaprio, Rita Hayworth and Kim Bassinger. A fresh take on a classic persona can translate into top-dollar demand - which is precisely the case in the transformation of San Diego's Fashion Valley Center. The mall made a comeback last October when it debuted its $112 million renovation and 270,000 sq. ft. expansion.

First opened in 1969, the 1.6 million sq. ft. regional mall had been successful for many years, housing such upscale retailers as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. But the center's owner, Atlanta-based ERE Yarmouth, decided it was time to update the mall's appearance to ensure contemporary appeal. Fashion Valley is one of the investments in ERE Yarmouth Retail's Prime Property Fund.

The decision to renovate came after the company witnessed a long period of new development in the surrounding area. As far back as 1987, competitors began entering the region; eventually, the center's position in the market was challenged.

"When we did market analysis, we found we had tenants who wanted to be in the market, but we had no place to put them," says Jerry Matelski, ERE Yarmouth's vice president of retail asset management. So to maintain market share and to ensure market dominance, the company created more room by adding another level.

Fashion Valley had to undergo a shift in its tenant mix, too. "We added space to accommodate more upscale retailers while keeping our mid-price intact. That's what you'll find at Fashion Valley now - a strong blending of the two," says Matelski.

Mission achieved Fashion Valley began as a typical, open-air California mall with a town-square, gathering-place environment. ERE Yarmouth sought a new, fresh look that would make the mall a destination within itself, and brought in Los Angeles-based Altoon + Porter Architects (A+P) for the redesign.

To create the second level, A+P employed a build-over technique that would allow each level to move independently during an earthquake. "Seismic concerns come into play whenever you're developing in California," reports Matelski. "We had to bring Fashion Valley up to code and make sure that the center could handle the weight load."

Design tips from Mother Nature, in the way of vertical supports, were developed to provide structural integrity while tying in with the overall design strategy of the center.

The superregional center's new design was based on Mission-style architecture that imitates the buildings constructed by Franciscan friars who colonized California. Missions were built with readily available materials such as wood, hay, adobe bricks and mortar, so A+P used similar materials to lend authenticity.

The makeover combined an allegiance to the area's history with a reflection of its personality. "The design strategy," says Carl Meyer, architectural partner-in-charge, "was rooted in the creation of an environment that capitalizes on the interplay of garden and city themes and reflects the casual character of the city."

To capture the ambience of San Diego, the architects used extensive landscaping and a vast array of canopies, awnings and custom-designed treillage, some of which soar 70 to 80 feet high. A casual motif, created with ceramic tile and palettes of stone and plaster, carries throughout the work. Custom-designed light fixtures accent the wooden treillage, which serves to reduce sun glare.

A grand staircase now sits on either side of the center's northern entry, where the "town square" is located. A new arrival motor court and portal trellis, built in the center's Mission design, sit near the staircase. Uneven textures reminiscent of mortar were used to tie in with the center's new facade.

The all-new second level houses expansions of Nordstrom, Robinson-May and Macy's, as well as a 60,000 sq. ft. multi-screen cineplex and a wide variety of restaurants. In addition, eater-tainment venues - featuring outdoor terraces with food-court seating areas - provide views of the San Diego River and the arrival court below.

One of the more unusual features of this "restaurant row," says A+P's William J. Sebring, associate partner for retail design, is a trellis colonnade named Cafe Terrace that masks the parking structure behind it while creating a fresh, new image.

Good neighbor Sam Since the second level of a mall is usually more difficult to lease than ground-floor space, the expansion at Fashion Valley includes more than one arrival point to its upper level. In addition to the staircase at the northern entry/town square area, an elevated bridge connects the mall to a newly constructed light rail station, providing mass-transit passengers easy access to the upper level. Thus, the second story has been easier than usual to lease, Matelski reports.

"The renovated Fashion Valley now houses 35-plus new retailers - none of which is available elsewhere in San Diego County," reports Carol Sullivan, the center's senior marketing manager. Among the big-name, upscale retailers added to the center's mix are Tiffany & Co., Bally, Brooks Brothers, Kenneth Cole, Coach Leatherware and J.Crew.

Besides tenants, Fashion Valley had to draw customers, too. With an estimated 5 million people living within 40 miles of the mall, one goal of the renovation was to respond better to the region's demographic mix. "The center, just as San Diego as a whole, is a big tourist destination, so the clientele mix was always heavily international," says Matelski. "But in recent years, we'd begun to do even more business with our Mexican neighbors."

Hence, the center's new marketing strategy was to attract these international shoppers and reinforce the center as their local source for products and services. Achieving that goal, the expansion and renovation resulted in a doubling in traffic from the international community - from about 8 percent to 16 percent.

Another favorable development has been increased usage of the adjacent rail station, since the elevated bridge has served to lure more shoppers at night, Sullivan says.

In keeping with its dual commitment to the project and to the area itself, ERE Yarmouth effectively handled neighbor opposition at the beginning of renovation construction. "Residents on the hill above the mall were concerned because we were doing construction at night," says Matelski. "But we worked with them, putting in new storm windows on neighboring houses and installing air-conditioning units," which allowed residents to keep their windows closed and reduce the noise level.

Rising revenue While seven regional centers left ERE Yarmouth's portfolio in 1997 alone, the company chose to hang on to Fashion Valley. That was a good call, says James McCown, the company's vice president of corporate communications.

"Certain malls, such as Fashion Valley, with its town-square, gathering-place environment, can go on," he says. "So we made the decision to pump money into the center, and the sales figures there have been extremely rewarding."

Since the opening of the new space, Sullivan reports, sales have increased 84 percent and daily traffic has increased from about 50,000-60,000 to 75,000-125,000.

"Shopper response has been remarkable," she adds. "We have heard hundreds of people say that with the new facilities and new feel of the mall, there is no need to go elsewhere."

Matelski favorably echoes the increased sales stemming from the center's renovations. "In some cases, we've tripled income on a monthly basis," he says.

Retailers, too, are singing the praises of the renovation's results. "We're not only delighted with the caliber of traffic," says Jim Witte, manager of tenant Smith & Hawken, "but we're also very pleased with the benefits the new addition has provided in the way of employee recruiting. Everyone wants to work here because the place is so attractive and because it has so many amenities."

The new amenities, the additional 250,000 sq. ft. of retail shops, the popular entertainment venues - all have boosted the draw. And the state-of-the-art, multi-screen cinema was the perfect touch for a reborn star.

The design is part garden and part city, reflective of San Diego itself.

Eater-tainment venues on the second level - featuring outdoor terraces with seating areas - provide views of the San Diego River and the arrival court below.